Archive for the ‘data security breach’ Category

Legal and financial firms should follow the ICO’s data security guidelines, too

August 10, 2012

Just two days after the news of a Torquay health trust being fined £175,000 for publishing sensitive data of over 1,000 of their own employees on their website, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) released the top five areas which need improvement in order to keep personal and sensitive information safe within an SME. Although aimed at charities and public sector organisations, these tips are also relevant to the private sector, in particular the financial and legal arena where a vast amount of personal and sensitive information is handled.

The guidelines issued by the ICO include giving employees data protection training, being clear on what use is made of personal information and having an established data retention period, where it is only kept for as long as necessary. It is important to highlight the emphasis on the ‘people’ factor and the role of security awareness training in the protection of information within an organisation. Human error is still the leading cause of data protection breaches across the UK, most of which are not malicious. About a third of all data breaches (36 per cent) are due to negligent employees, according to the latest Symantec/Ponemon Institute ‘UK cost of a Data Breach’ study. It is therefore crucial to give more attention to educating people rather than simply concentrating on purchasing the latest data protection tools and technology.

Organisations have to act in two ways: on one side, they have to train their employees so that they are more aware of data protection regulations, the applicable risks to the organisation and internal policies, as well as the consequences of not following these regulations and policies; on the other side, they need to protect themselves from their own employees, making sure encryption is used on all devices, as well as limiting access to data to only those who are authorised.

If personal and sensitive information is lost, stolen or made public, the organisation responsible for the breach will potentially face a hefty fine – but the consequences of a data breach are not only financial. Especially in the case of financial and legal firms, there will also be reputational damage which may be too difficult to recover from.

It may be the case that for a large multi-national company the money and reputational loss involved does not affect their bottom line or position within the market too much, it is not the same for small and medium-size enterprises. With less money at their disposal and a limited number of loyal clients, a large fine can severely affect their capital and the subsequent reputational loss might lead to business loss and, ultimately, failure.

For this reason, it is increasingly important that SMEs in the legal and financial sector invest time and resources on preventing information security incidents, in order to avoid having to pay for their mistakes at a later date. There is a lot of trust bestowed upon these organisations by their clients, so the least they can do is to make sure that their details are kept safe and secure, ensuring that this trust is well deserved.

David Cowan, Head of Consulting Services

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How many police officers does it take to email 10,000 criminal records to a journalist by accident?

September 16, 2010

Just one. But this is not a joke.

A simple mistake caused by the recipient auto-complete function within an email client resulted in Gwent Police committing what has been referred to as the first major UK data security breach since the new regulations introduced by the Information Commissioner’s Office came into force in April this year. What is of particular interest about this case is that a breach of this scale (10,000 records) and gravity (the data leaked involved personal and sensitive information) occurred within a police environment which allegedly had strict policies and procedures. If that is the case, how were the policies circumvented so that the officer was able to commit this breach, and are security incidents caused by human error ultimately unavoidable?

The elephant in the room is that personal and sensitive data such as criminal records should not have been placed in an excel spreadsheet if strict processes were indeed implemented, not even for internal use. In fact, it is important that organisations dealing with personal, sensitive and confidential data have well-defined information asset classification and media handling procedures. Through the identification and labelling of confidential and sensitive data, all information would be classified based on its value and risk to the organisation in terms of Confidentiality, Integrity or Availability. Criminal records, for instance, would be labelled as private, restricted or confidential depending on the classification marking scheme and would be automatically restricted to only personnel who are authorised to access this information. If a similar scheme had been in place at Gwent Police and the information clearly labelled and controlled, then the breach would have been almost certainly avoided because the data included in the email would not have been accessible by non-authorised personnel.

It is possible, though, that Gwent Police actually had all the tools necessary to protect the data, but lacked the general awareness and training extended to all personnel. Certainly it wouldn’t be the only organisation affected by this issue.  Recent data collected by PricewaterhouseCoopers, illustrates that despite spending more than ever on information security, only half of companies surveyed provide staff with any form of security training, and only  one in five large organisations believe their security policies are very well understood by their employees. The results of the latest Information Security Breaches Survey highlight the need for better education in order to reduce risks, as a striking 92 per cent of firms with over 250 employees and 83 per cent of smaller firms (up to 25 members of staff) admit to have recorded a security incident in the past year.

Lack of awareness, little understanding of the implications and perhaps forgetfulness or stress are the most likely causes of human error, which can result in staff ignoring security measures, such as sending confidential data to their private email address, losing an unencrypted USB device or accidentally sending information to the wrong recipient. It is important to note that in these cases, if the data was correctly labelled and encrypted there wouldn’t be a breach of the Data Protection Act. In most cases, the ICO serves an enforcement notice if there is a failure to comply with the Act and the failure has caused or is likely to cause damage or distress to anyone.  The potential repercussions could include the public disclosure of the facts by the ICO, internal disciplinary actions within the organisation or a fine which, under the new regulations, can amount to £500,000.

Comparison with data collected by PwC in 2008 shows that the cost of cybercrime to the business has doubled to more than £10bn in just two years. The average cost of a breach in a large organisation is now between £280,000 and £690,000 (it was £90,000 – £170,000 two years ago) and due to the increased use of cloud computing, risks are rising rather than diminishing. Although the number of organisations with a formal Information Security policy and sufficient IT security tools has improved, the measures seem to be unable to resolve the greatest threat, the human factor: 46 per cent of large organisations have declared that staff have lost or leaked confidential data, which in 45 per cent of cases resulted in a “very” or “extremely” serious breach of information security.

As this data suggests, even with the most advanced technology in place it is not possible to eradicate risk altogether; however, it is possible to mitigate the damage and prevent mistakes like the one the Gwent police officer made by adopting encryption technology and policies that are emitted from the top and are backed up by disciplinary procedures – but it is extremely important that these are accompanied by extensive training and awareness sessions across the organisation. By educating all members of staff, including trusted partners and 3rd party suppliers, it will help reduce, although not eliminate completely, risks to a level that is acceptable for the organisation, which in the case of large organisations which deal with sensitive information, such as the Police or other public sector organisations, needs to be as low as possible.

David Cowan, Head of Infrastructure and Security

This article has been published on Government & Public Sector Journal: http://www.gpsj.co.uk/view-article.asp?articleid=303

Public sector, private data – is outsourcing the Service Desk too risky?

June 3, 2010

As the Treasury announce cuts amounting to £6.25bn, £95m of which deriving from a reduction in IT spending, attention is once more directed towards outsourcing as a means to reduce IT expenditure. But Information Technology stores and processes large amounts of personal, sensitive and confidential data, and when it comes to the public sector it can have a very high level of sensitivity, hence a lot of trust is bestowed upon personnel that have access to it. It is already difficult to place confidence in in-house staff, due to the high number of data breaches that are perpetrated by internal staff, backed up by statistics, but the option of off-shore outsourcing elevates the threat level from code yellow to code red.

Widespread use of Cloud computing is unlikely to become a reality in the foreseeable future: strict regulations relating to the Data Protection Act, which the public sector in particular follows religiously, make it virtually impossible to obtain assurances that the data stored outside the organisation’s premises is adequately controlled and kept secure. However, remote access provided to support staff based at another location, be it in the same or another country, still presents a risk in that information can still be collected and recorded. 

With the government CIO, John Suffolk, encouraging the use of outsourcing to countries offering cheaper labour as a cost-cutting strategy, it is time to understand to what extent this can be done and if the public sector can really benefit from off-shoring the Service Desk after all.

Organisations in the public sector are essentially different from private companies: although it seems obvious, it is important to bear in mind that they are funded by British taxpayers, and therefore work for them. However, providing access to personal and sensitive data to companies thousands of miles away and outside the European Union which have different culture, ethics and laws might put the safety of their personal details at risk. For instance, information such as identity, financial and health records can fall into the wrong hands and be used for malicious intent. Not long ago, ITV found that British medical and financial records held abroad could be bought for just a few dollars. No matter how ‘rare’ this event might be, it is not a risk Britons are prepared to take, if the decision were up to them.

It is certainly difficult for organisations in the public sector to carry out a satisfactory level of service when their budgets are being reduced, but it is important to think about the consequences of outsourcing the IT department: a move initially intended to save money can end up making the organisation lose money as a result of large fines and court cases, and most importantly, it can lead to a loss of credibility and reputation.

Recognising a ‘safe’ provider is not easy, especially as identification of a risky supplier often only happens once a breach has been committed, when it might be too late for an organisation to escape liability and to save face. However, it is possible to assess a provider’s trustworthiness before a breach occurs: they should follow Best Practice and have a mature Information Security Management System in line with the ISO 27001 standard, assessed through an independent security review, risk assessment and gap analysis.

There are also better alternatives to extreme or risky versions of outsourcing. For example, the IT department can be kept internal, for better control, but be managed by a third party which is aware of the stringent safety measures necessary for working in this peculiar sector. That said, most information security breaches pertain to threats inside an organisation and are in many cases not a malicious act but a consequence of ignorance, frustration or lack of risk awareness. Well-trained and appropriately-skilled Support staff can reduce these security incidents to a minimum, as would implementing organisational-wide information security awareness sessions.

Management commitment within the industry is especially important to convey the significance of protecting personal and sensitive data and the seriousness of breaching the Data Protection Act, which does not only concern IT staff. Extensive training is necessary to raise awareness across the entire organisation – whenever there is a data breach it is never the provider that suffers the worst consequences, but the organisation’s reputation.

 

David Cowan, Head of Infrastructure and Security

This opinion piece appears in this week’s Dispatch Box on Public Technology: http://www.publictechnology.net/sector/public-sector-private-data-outsourcing-service-desk-too-risky

Is information safe enough at NHS trusts?

April 1, 2010

It looks like NHS trusts are starting to realise that Information Security is not just a matter of using complex passwords, locking drawers at the end of the day and installing the latest firewall and antivirus solutions. The Information Commissioner has been particularly critical of the NHS in the past due to a high proportion of security breaches as a result of inadequate Information Security controls and staff awareness programmes.

The result has been an NHS wide initiative to ensure all removable media including laptops and USB drives are encrypted. However, this may not be enough. As reported by the BBC recently, a remarkable amount of non-medical personnel at UK trusts have access to patient records including recent medical history – at least 100,000 including porters, hospital domestics and IT staff, a Big Brother Watch survey stated.

It seems like the risk is not only from staff at off-shore service providers collecting and selling British data to make a few extra pounds, as reported on ITV not long ago. It also comes from internal personnel who have the potential to access extremely sensitive data without the appropriate authority or preventative controls.

 This is not surprising: data collected in the BIS Information Security Breaches Survey 2009 illustrated that 60 per cent of all companies suffered a security breach in the previous two years and of these, 50 per cent were perpetrated by staff, often premeditated or malicious but in many cases simply a matter of a stolen laptop or lost removal media device.

There is an obvious need for greater awareness of information security regulations across the entire organisation, and measures must be taken to protect personal and sensitive data. Management in particular need to be involved in order to avoid resentment, complacency and to ensure everyone takes the matter seriously.

In the case of the NHS, information at risk is highly sensitive and breaches can have very serious outcomes. Consequences of Data Protection Act breaches are not confined to costly fines and a few employees being fired – it is the organisation’s reputation that suffers the most.

This risk can be mitigated by conducting an independent gap analysis and security review which would assess compliance with Information Security best practice, i.e. ISO27001, IG Toolkit v7, and certify that information held within an organisation is secure, reducing the risk of incidents and the cost to the business.

Equally important are staff awareness sessions to which not only general staff but executive participation is required, which is vital in creating a culture where Information Security is part of the organisation’s DNA.

 

David Cowan, Head of Infrastructure and Security